Last weekend, Donald and I were in Nova Scotia for my 20-year highschool reunion. It was a lot of fun! I attended a tiny highschool in rural Nova Scotia, and our graduating class was somewhere between 40 and 45 students. So there wasn’t anyone in my class that I didn’t know; although, embarrassingly, I had trouble recognizing some people at the reunion. Not as many people made it for the 20-year reunion as for the 10, but it was still great to see everyone who showed up.
Never mind that, though! I’m sure you’re all dying to hear about the cookbooks I acquired on my trip.
My parents are thinking of moving again (for the 3rd time since I graduated from highschool), so when I was there, my mom had been going through all the stuff she’s accumulated over the years and deciding what she really wanted and what she was going to try to sell in a yard sale. She had a big box of cookbooks she’d decided she didn’t want anymore, and invited me to go through and see if there was anything I wanted. (Of course, she’s still keeping most of her large cookbook collection; I come by my love of cooking and cookbooks honestly.)
To my horror, she was planning to get rid of this gem from 1970, James Beard’s How to Eat Better for Less Money (a revised edition of an original 1954 publication). (The dust jacket was long gone by the time I was old enough to start reading cookbooks, so I’ve only ever seen this cover.) I can’t tell you how many hours I spent poring over this masterpiece as a child. It had a chapter on cheese, with descriptions of all sorts of cheeses too fancy for us to buy in Nova Scotia in the 1980s (and too expensive for our limited food budget–I think the emphasis is on the “eat better”, not on the “less money”). There are suggested menus for various occasions (“Summer Terrace Dinner for 6”, “Winter Brunch for 4”). There’s even “A helpful supplement on budget wines and spirits” at the end. I used to fantasize about cooking all the different menus for dinner parties I would have someday (yes, I was an odd child). I’m not sure how many of the recipes from this book I actually made as a teenager, but there was the notorious granita di caffe that I made for dessert when I was about 14, and that turned my brother, sister and me off coffee for years (I like coffee now, but I still can’t drink iced coffee or eat coffee ice-cream, in memory of that dessert; though I think that the problem was not so much that it was a bad recipe, but that children aged 9-14 who aren’t used to caffeine and suddenly eat a whole bunch of coffee slush drowned in whipped cream are likely to make themselves sick to the stomach, and that’s what happened to us.).
The sad thing, though, is that the Suck Fairy appears to have waved her magic wand over this cookbook, because, looking through it, I can’t imagine I’m ever going to make any of these recipes. They’re not all bad, exactly (though there’s a disturbing section on ways to cook hot dogs); I just think that the recipes that sound decent are pretty close to similar recipes in better cookbooks (like the America’s Test Kitchen ones). And the wine and spirits section! Oh dear! I’m sure the wine section is reasonable, though it’s no longer quite as useful for me to know which vintages of the 1960s will be a good investment for future drinking (unless I want to raid my friend Bob’s cellar). But how about this tip:
“To serve a superb premium Scotch at low cost, buy six bottles of a low-priced blended Scotch and one bottle of Smith’s Glenlivet or Glenfiddich unblended all-malt Scotch. Pour the contents of the seven bottles into a container and mix them. Refill the seven bottles and put on your own label, which might read, ‘John Smith’s Personal Selection.’ We promise you the result will be as good as any $9 Scotch on the market.”
Well, that may be true. But somehow I don’t think they’re talking about a $9 Scotch in 2011 prices.
A lot of the advice in the book is outdated. It suggests using “hot-roll” mix to make quick pizza. Apparently this book was published before you could buy those cardboard tubes of pizza dough at every grocery store. It warns that shallots are hard to come by, and that you might be able to find them “in foreign markets in most large cities” (try Stop and Shop). It suggests buying your meat from a knowledgeable neighborhood butcher instead of the grocery store (these days, it seems that you have to live in a large city for there to even be a neighborhood butcher, the decent ones all seem to be pretty high-end and not a place to go to save money, and at a lot of the chains pretending to be neighborhood butchers–like the Meat House in Arlington–you end up having long, frustrating conversations explaining to them where on the animal the cut of meat you want comes from if it’s anything more obscure than a brisket (can they not use Google?)).
It’s sad when a beloved cookbook is cursed by the Suck Fairy (the magical entity who points out to you that the books you loved as a child really aren’t that good). I’m almost afraid to look too hard for a copy of another out-of-print childhood favorite, The Larousse Treasury of Country Cooking (to be distinguished from the far more famous and not out-of-print Larousse Gastronomique). This wasn’t one my mother owned, but one I used to borrow from the bookmobile over and over (a bookmobile is what you have, at least what you used to have, when you attend a tiny rural elementary school without much of a library). I think the bookmobile must have gone to more than just elementary schools, otherwise it had a weirdly high number of cookbooks. But I digress.
My mother was also getting rid of Fields of Greens: New Vegetarian Recipes From the Celebrated Greens Restaurant. It looks pretty good, though it’s also a little out of date (1993). The author keeps telling you that you probably won’t be able to find Meyer lemons if you don’t live in northern California (and then tempting you with recipes that require them–so cruel!). But they’re pretty common in Boston, when they’re in season. I mean, they’re common if you shop at Whole Foods or Russo’s or Wilson Farm (i.e., with all the other yuppies). Maybe not at the Stop & Shop.
I also acquired Great Good Food: Luscious Lower-Fat Cooking, by Julee Rosso (one of the co-authors of The Silver Palate Cookbook). This one I’m a little more iffy about. It looks like it has good recipes, but they’re organized by seasonal menu or event rather than ingredient or type, and the seasonal menus are a bit idiosyncratic. For instance, I just opened the book at random to the Spring chapter and found a menu for “Dinner After Ballooning”. Apparently the author likes to go up in a hot air balloon in the spring when it’s nice, which is kind of cool, though of course not as cool as if it were a zeppelin and she wore steampunk garb (did I mean cool or dorky?). Anyway, Herbed Bruschetta, Monkfish Medallions, Baby Zucchini with Pesto, Red-Hot Radishes, and Strawberry Sorbet sound lovely. But it’s kind of a pain to think, “okay, I need a recipe for monkfish”, and not to be able to turn to a nice, convenient chapter entitled “Fish.” This might be why this cookbook is apparently out of print, and Fields of Greens is not.
I poked through my mom’s box of craft books that she no longer wanted, too, and didn’t find as many prizes, since I like cooking best. I did find Parties and Projects for the Holidays (Christmas With Martha Stewart Living), which is mostly crafts, but has some recipes too, for holiday menus. They’re my favorite sorts of menus to make, the ones where the suggested timeline starts off with “One week before” (i.e., you can’t possibly make all those things in one solid day of cooking alone). They’re not the favorite menus of friends and family who have to put up with me while I’m cooking, though, since I tend to get just a little bit stressed out (i.e., impossible to put up with) when I’m cooking a long, complex menu. Of course, Martha Stewart’s book is not just about cooking. There are also step-by-step instructions for making Christmas ornaments from tinsel made out of real gold and silver.
Finally, although this is a cookbook only in the sense of having recipes, not in the sense of telling you how to make food, I acquired The Complete Soapmaker. I’m probably not really going to start making my own soap, but it’s one of those things I like to pretend to myself that I’ll have time to do someday (like gardening, knitting, sewing my own clothes, making cheese, brewing beer and wine….). The book gets very mixed reviews on Amazon; some people say it makes great soap, others say it makes terrible, useless soap. But the recipes sound cool. The book does make the mistake of telling you to add water to the lye when you’re mixing it, not the other way around (which is much, much safer). This error has apparently been corrected in later editions, but since I worked as a chemist for 13 years, I sort of already knew this. It also seems like a lot of the reviewers on Amazon are inordinately afraid of lye. I mean, it’s corrosive and can be dangerous, don’t get me wrong. It’s just that when you’ve worked in the lab with materials that can burst into spontaneous flame upon exposure to moist air (and seen them do it, and had to put out the fire with an extinguisher), lye doesn’t seem so scary anymore.
My sister was quite concerned that I might have gotten our mother’s copy of Your Country Kitchen, but Mom isn’t getting rid of that one yet. And besides, I already have my own copy of this out-of-print treasure that I picked up at a used bookstore a few years ago. Despite the fact that this is a British cookbook, many of the recipes are quite good (especially if you have a kitchen scale, since a lot of the quantities are given in weights), and the cheese fondue recipe is my “go-to” version. So Lisa can have this one, if Mom ever decides she doesn’t want it anymore.
I still want the Purity cookbook, though!